Camping without a tent probably strikes you as making about as much sense as deep-sea fishing without a boat. In fact, many campers who enjoy roughing it on brief excursions into the backcountry with nothing but an ultralight rucksack have been strategizing for a long time about how best to embrace the philosophy of ultralight backpacking and tentless camping. The worries going tentless engenders in the mind of regular campers and backpacking enthusiasts are fairly easy to imagine for anyone who has been on a camping trip before, however brief it might have been.
What can tentless campers do to shelter themselves against cold weather and critters like bugs or bears? It may seem like a huge hassle to go tentless, but hikers, backpackers, and campers who have attempted the switch have again and again come out of their first time sleeping at a tentless campsite with a renewed vigor and joy in backcountry camping trips.
We write tons about camping tents here but now it’s time to embrace another manner of camping that adventurous campers and backpackers have been embracing and experimenting with for a long time. Ever since ultralight backpacking was popularized in the late 1990s by rock climber Ray Jardine, backpackers have been flexing their creative muscles to trailblaze new and innovative ways to cut weight from their rucksacks. As they continue to make progress figuring out how to camp without a tent, ultralight backpackers and camping gear manufacturers have developed a multitude of good strategies and great alternatives to camping tents. Sleeping outside tentless may seem impossible and dangerous but in the end, the tent alone does not a camping trip make. Campers and backpackers can avoid a surprising amount of hassle by going tentless.
This guide is for anyone whose interest has been piqued by the idea of emptying their rucksack of the extra, overly technological bits of camping gear and going out into the backcountry to really experience nature with no mechanical interlocutor. Read on to the end for a full discussion of going tentless and all the considerations that entails. When you finish perhaps you’ll find you too have the courage to try sleeping outside without a shelter once you know how to camp without a tent.
There are a few ways ultralight campers have figured out for sleeping outside on a backpacking trip without having to deal with the hassle of setting up and breaking down a tent. Generally, the sleeping bag is still seen as an essential piece of camping gear, especially in cold weather. In terms of a roof above one’s head, there are some campers who rely on found-shelter, meaning a rock overhang, cave, or other natural feature that affords them some kind of protection. For campers who have decided that they do want to have their own shelter with them, ultralight tarps and what’s called a bivvy (or bivy sack or bivi, all shortened forms of bivouac sack) have become the most common tent alternatives. Essentially, campers set up a tarp between two fixed points, maybe two trees for example, and arrange it so it shields a small area from rain, wind, snow, and sunshine.
In the area under the tarp, ultralight campers may string up a hammock or lay out their sleeping bag. Sleeping pads are often used to separate the camper from the cold ground. The bivvy is then used to keep water away from the camper and all their gear. A bivvy is basically an outer layer for a sleeping bag. It fits around the outside of the sleeping bag and offers protection against cold weather and some additional comfort against the cold ground. The jury is still out on whether it’s best to put a sleeping pad inside the bivvy or leave it outside. There’s a hood campers can pull over their head while they sleep, in case the thought of waking up on the cold ground in the middle of the night while you’re sleeping outside makes you feel anxious.
Some campers use a tarp, a bivvy sack, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad. Some who go in warmer seasons (think late spring to early autumn) get by with nothing but a hammock and sleeping bag. It depends on the specific requirements of the individual camping trip, but every variation possible with this gear has been attempted and successfully accomplished.
There are many creepy crawly things in all the various biospheres of the natural world. In many parts of the United States mosquitos can occasionally get so numerous that they can ruin a camping trip. So how have ultralight campers found is the best way to protect themselves from bugs, snakes, and bears? The answer is simpler than you think. For flying bugs, mosquito netting will do just fine and easily hangs from a tree or anything similar. Mosquito netting is susceptible to getting taken up in strong winds, but if the wind is strong enough to buoy the mosquito netting it’s likely to also buoy the mosquitoes themselves. For slithering critters, the bivi will be enough when it’s closed to keep snakes and the like from slithering into a sleeping bag.
Of course, no method is 100% guaranteed to repel every critter away from a camper. But by and large, the bivi and mosquito netting get the job done. For larger animals, there are other strategies that are overwhelmingly successful. It really depends on the camper, because frequently the way to repel larger critters requires a camper to know how to act if the larger critter should appear. Ultralight campers often fret the first time they go into bear country with tent alternatives. But the honest truth is, the regular tent camping enthusiasts generally pack with them will not physically stop a bear from entering. The reason campers are safe in bear country is that there are standards for things like bear-proof food containers. It’s extremely unlikely a black bear will bother breaking into a tent unless there is food inside.
Bear spray is always good to have on hand in bear country. The first time you go to bear country you might thing hiding food in your tent or under your pillow will be enough, but in fact, that’s exactly the way to attract a big bear into your tent. Bear-proof food containers are the law in most campgrounds in bear country, and for good reason. Bug spray and bear spray both come in ultralight packaging that’s recyclable and/or reusable in keeping with the Leave No Trace guidelines. In fact, those Leave No Trace guidelines are quite similar to the founding principles of ultralight tentless camping.
Weathering cold weather and rainstorms
There’s a fair point to be made that tent camping generally involves a lot of planning about how to keep a standard tent camping tent warm in cold weather and waterproof during rainstorms. That being said, how do tentless campers address these problems? The tarp we mentioned earlier works the same way a rainfly does over a tent camping tent, only, of course, there is no tent involved in tentless camping. Some ultralight campers swear a second tarp on the ground also helps to waterproof the campsite, but this is up for debate. Some campers only use one above them, some only one on the campsite floor when the weather is clear or there aren’t any trees nearby. Some use both. A hammock that holds a camper up above the ground of the campsite negates the second tarp on the ground, but then again some campers want to be able to step out of their hammock onto a dry tarp.
In order to have a good night of restorative sleep using tent alternatives and one’s own shelter, backcountry campers have developed certain precautions to protect the ever-important campfire from the elements. These precautions are more or less the same as they would be in tent camping. The biggest advantage when it comes to campfires when one is sleeping outside under one’s own shelter is that the fire can be easily constructed under the roof tarp and a sheltering wall can be constructed just behind the campfire to protect it from the wind. The smoke has plenty of room to escape through the open sides beneath the tarp. Even in windy environments or cold weather conditions where snow is a concern, the tarp can be angled and still offer complete waterproof precipitation protection and let campfire smoke blow away without further hassle to the camper.
How to camp without a tent
Some of these brilliant tentless campers have gone so far as to deconstruct tent camping tents and come up with designs using just the tent poles and a rainfly, leaving the actual tent behind to shed some pounds from their rucksack. These tent-pole tarp constructions offer great protection for individuals from rain and snow. They are really easy to set up; the whole process shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
Granted these shelters are only big enough for one person generally speaking, but what you are likely to see the most often around campsites where ultralight tentless campers have established their campgrounds is that they each have a hammock, a bivi, a tarp, a tent-pole construction, or some mixture thereof. In cold weather, some campers have even been known to sleep in their bivy sack directly on the snow or on a sleeping pad that is directly on the snow.
The philosophy of ultralight camping means rucksacks should be free of everything but the most essential elements. Hammocks, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, tarps, and mosquito netting all come in an ultralight design that features construction materials that weigh next to nothing. Before the first time you go out to try tentless camping, you may feel apprehensive about your ability to get a good night of restful sleep at a tentless campsite. But when you stop to think about it, the tent is not absolutely necessary by any means.
The cold ground is still the cold ground regardless of the tent. Tent camping tents aren’t usually constructed with plushy, cushioned floors. Usually, they’re made of similar material to that of tarps. If you’re going to sleep on the floor of a tent with a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad then there’s not going to be much difference sleeping outside underneath a tarp with that same sleeping bag and sleeping pad.
Roughing it and sleeping outside using tent alternatives may seem like it’s only for campers and backpackers that are die-hard outdoor enthusiasts, but from time to time there are last-minute camping trips that didn’t afford much time for planning or campers who couldn’t be bothered to deal with the hassle of tent camping. To be a truly versatile camper, it’s best to be familiar with tent camping as well as how to camp without a tent.
Should an emergency befall you in the middle of a backpacking trip, should it be tent damage or theft, it’s always going to be a huge relief to know how to survive sleeping outside tentless in the backcountry. Once you’ve seen one example of a tentless campsite, the whole idea makes an intuitive kind of sense. We’re not saying you’ll ditch a tent forever after the first time you try tentless camping, but you’re sure to enjoy both tent camping and tentless camping.
Leave No Trace and tentless camping
Every camper should be familiar with the Leave No Trace guidelines. The nice thing about tentless camping and the ultralight backpacking philosophy, in general, is that they dovetail into one another so nicely and so readily. Planning ahead for a tentless backcountry expedition takes very little time once the campsite know-how has been learned. A practice trial before the first time you go out into the backcountry will help you learn how to camp without a tent.
The wildlife and refuse elements of the Leave No Trace guidelines are already implicitly considered in the ultralight and tentless camping theories. The less you carry, the less garbage you produce during your camping trip. Considerations for wildlife, especially in bear country, have already been discussed. And for the other campers who may be nearby, nothing is more accommodating to others than not bringing along tons of noisy equipment and electronics and eschewing a massive tent that can get in the way and block the view of natural vistas.
You might theorize that putting the ultralight philosophy, tentless camping, and the Leave No Trace guidelines into practice individually will reinforce a kind of total all-encompassing philosophy, and you’d be right. The nice thing about considering or practicing camping with this kind of forethought and consideration for the camping experience is that you will find that you’re experiencing camping on a whole new, deeper, more profound level from the first time you try it.
Tentless camping can be intimidating before you try it out for the first time, but the important thing to remember is that it isn’t so much different than normal tent camping. The over-reliance on tents in tent camping is indicative of a prohibitive impulse that is very limiting. Once this apprehension is destroyed and you’ve tried tentless camping with your own shelter that’s handmade with a tarp or just strung up between two trees, you’ll marvel at the fear you felt when you considered tentless camping for the first time. Without the hassle of complicated equipment, you’ll have more time to enjoy being in the great outdoors and experiencing fellowship with your fellow campers and backpackers.
Ample strategizing for self-protection has been planned out and put to the test by tentless campers and ultralight backpacking enthusiasts. The vast majority of critters are easily taken care of with some lightweight mosquito netting, bug spray, and enough research about the surrounding area undertaken before the camping trip begins. Tentless camping in bear country requires enough preparation to carry a bear-proof food container with you and perhaps a can of bear spray. The campsites themselves are rather sophisticated considering the normally-central tent camping tent is gone.
But there is a separate kind of ingenuity surrounding tentless camping. Anyone who tries sleeping outside at a tentless campsite will feel accomplished afterward and will perhaps feel, as many others have, that a spiritual or psychological weight has been lifted from their shoulders along with the pounds they’ve shed from their rucksacks.
Now that you’ve read through our guide, you’re ready to continue with your tentless camping trip planning. After a bit more exploration of the various considerations of tentless camping, you’ll be ready to try sleeping outside underneath your own shelter in any weather conditions without any fear, because you’ll have learned how to camp without a tent.
Bonus tip: Check out this video to see a great alternative to tent camping in a heavy rainstorm!